Cecilia Tan founded Circlet Press in the early ‘90s while she was still working at Beacon Press helping market other writers’ books. She was writing erotic science fiction and wasn’t getting any traction because most erotic venues wouldn’t take science fiction, and most science fiction publications don’t want any sex. So she founded Circlet Press in order to publish some of her own short stories (starting with Telepaths Don’t Need Safewords,) and continues to run it today; the press has published dozens of anthologies and books by independent authors, and Tan is a huge supporter of “sex positive” writing and says that anyone should be able to write what they want, whether Amazon agrees or not. She has also published with three of the 5 big publishers. I interned for Circlet Press in my 20s and continue to help out wherever I can.
Making a living as a writer is a sort of never-ending process because the rules keep changing and it’s not like a job where you get a good position and just stay there or wait for raises to come. You have to be constantly hustling. What’s different between a freelance plumber and a freelance writer is that you know there’s always going to be people who need plumbers, but when it comes to writers, it’s like, but who needs the story I want to write about elves in space? [Or] whatever it is that inspires you to write fiction. The nonfiction writer is a little more marketable in some ways because there are publications that need to fill slots so they will have readers so they will have eyeballs to sell advertising to. I do a little bit of that. Journalism is a whole different thing.
The first money I ever made for writing was for journalistic work. When I was a teenager I started selling articles and columns about the Puerto Rican boy-band Menudo mostly to teen magazines. I wrote for SuperTeen and Teen Machine and a couple other ones and I was like 16 at the time. The payment was $50 [in 1983]. I’m lucky to get that now. It was $50 a month and then the articles paid anywhere from $100 to $200.
Tan knew that she wanted to be a writer when she was 11 years old. Her dad told her that if she started making money as a writer, he would match every dollar she made, so she was really making double what the magazines paid her as teenager.
How I got the idea to do that was totally my aunt, Maureen Brady, [who] was a fiction writer. She was the founder of one of the first lesbian feminist publishing houses, Spinsters Ink, published in 1978. Because she had written a novel called Give Me Your Good Ear, and big publishers were not interested in it, she was like, I’ve just got to do it myself. It is very similar to what I ended up doing with Circlet Press. I’m pretty sure it was either her or her girlfriend who gave me a little mass-market book that was called The Freelance Writer’s Guide or The Writer’s Guide to Freelancing.
I didn’t start selling my fiction professionally until I was already out of college and actually working a day job in book publishing. I was working a 9 to 5 job in the marketing department of Beacon Press here in Boston.
I knew what I wanted to do with myself, which is become a writer, but you don’t just sit at home and be a writer. I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t yet know exactly what the books were that would set me on fire. I knew I wanted to write science fiction, I knew I wanted to write something that would make the world I live in better for people like me.
So she got a job. After attending Brown University, Tan started interning at Beacon Press. It was unpaid until they hired her as an employee. My initial starting salary was $12,500 a year. This was 1989. After three months it went up to $15,000. I stayed at $15,000 for a year. And then, when I got the promotion to be in charge of special sales and sub rights, I went up to $18,000.
I finally realized after stress management class and therapy that my job at Beacon was holding me back from doing my own writing, and that all my energy was going into marketing and publicizing other peoples’ writing, because that’s my job. And I wasn’t getting any of my own writing done.
It was killing me.
While I was in college, or at the very end of graduation actually, I had a diagnosis of cervical cancer. I had it cut out. And then I started to have abnormal paps again. And then I quit my job to go to grad school to go into an MFA program and to write full time, and it magically went away. And they’re like, stress suppresses your immune system, this cancer is caused by a virus, [and] when you get overstressed it comes back. So don’t do that.
I went to Emerson. Corwin came and picked me up to take me out to dinner to celebrate my last day of work. I look[ed] at [the mail when we got home], and it was my first acceptance letter of a story that I had sent somewhere. It was like, here I am quitting my job to write full time, and on my last day I got the contract for [my] first professional sale of a short story.
At my very first writing workshop I started writing what’s the current form of Daron’s Guitar Chronicles, which I had originally started as a teenager. So that was 1992 that I started it. I started self-publishing that in 2009; it’s now up to book 11. I think it’s ending with book 12. This arc anyways is finally going to finish. It’s 1.5 million words. Tan published the book as a serial online before printing and selling it in physical book form.
Just when her writing career was taking off, the first big shift in publishing hit. In 1998, she says, Barnes & Noble stepped in and cut 5,000 independent bookstores down to 500. Publishing companies were also going out of business—eventually from 5,000 to 500 to 50 to 5. It’s not that people don’t like it [the stories], but industry keeps changing out from under you.
Tan is now at the point where editors come to her asking if she’ll write something for them. I wrote a gay navy seal billionaire Christmas-themed abduction romance for Riptide Publishing because they do an annual Christmas or Holiday charity bundle and they asked me if I would do something for them.
I write 1,000 words an hour when I’m healthy and awake. I know when I’m going along at only 500 words an hour either I’m anemic, I underslept, or I don’t know where a book’s going. But I don’t write every day.
Tan has been writing three books a year, but has cut back to two. Her gig as publications director for the Society for American Baseball Research brings in about half her income. She also teaches martial arts and does massage therapy for a little extra cash and to take a break from writing.